A Virtually Real Advantage

June 10, 2008
The Top Challenge of Mechatronic Product Development Is Lack of Cross-Functional Knowledge or Qualified Systems Engineers
By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

This month we detail how machine builders use tools such as design and simulation software and hardware prototyping, so I thought it might be useful to point out some recent Aberdreen Group study findings on the blending of product design and mechatronics.

Mechatronics is one of those disciplines that has meant different things to different people as its visibility has risen. The study calls it a trend to blend mechanical, electromechanics, digital control systems and electronic design elements into an integrated system and examines how companies are attacking this effort and its impact on raising profitability.

The study found 69% of respondents said pressure to shorten development time pushed them into improving the product development process, and 44% said increased customer demand for better performing products was doing likewise.

“Mechatronic product development has added a new level of complexity to product development as companies strive to integrate mechanical, electrical and software components into their products,” write the Aberdeen authors. “Each of these design elements draws on an engineering discipline with unique knowledge bases, processes and design tools. Bringing them all together into a single product is far from simple.”

While this might be more true for the larger companies among us, the study found the top challenge of mechatronic product development is lack of cross-functional knowledge or qualified systems engineers. “While companies find it difficult to locate experienced systems engineers, they also do not have the design tools available that integrate the design data of all the elements that make up the product.”

Other big challenges of mechatronic product development noted in the study include achieving early identification of system level problems and difficulty predicting/modeling system behavior until physical prototyping.

Among companies in the study that Aberdeen defines as having best-in-class performance in meeting quality targets, product launch dates and revenue targets, the use of simulation software has been successful and impactful. These companies averaged about 25 virtual design iterations, built six physical prototypes and needed 2.6 rounds of testing. Those companies lagging in the use of these software tools made only about five virtual iterations, needing to build eight prototypes and endure six rounds of testing.

Specifically regarding the controls design process, these best-in-class companies have invested in capabilities to speed up design, address those pressures that drive improvements and, as a result, shorten development time. All of them—100% of respondents—specify software implementation details in the system model such as software design, processor, interface and standards. That, says Aberdeen, compares with only 50% of the average-performing companies. Fifty percent of the best-in-class respondents generate embedded software codes automatically based on software logic and structure defined in the system model, and 75% of them model system behavior with block diagrams, compared with 25% and 43% for other respondents.

“Best-in-class show as more likely to leverage simulation to start testing before physical prototypes are built,” says the study. “This saves time and has the potential to to avoid last minute debugging.” This group is 48% more likely to use hardware in the loop (HIL) tests to validate the controller’s behavior with the actual chip, meaning they can learn if the chip works without waiting for the controller to be built.”

The study quotes an unnamed technical services executive for an industrial equipment maker as saying about HIL that “the ability to simulate the system and test software greatly increased first-time quality and allowed devlopers to have much more immediate and meaningful feedback.”

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